Sorry for your loss

Next week is my grandma’s funeral. When I tell people this, I find myself downplaying it, adding that she died eight months ago for reasons unrelated to COVID-19. Yet, these details fail to make her death less painful or permanent.

When my grandma passed away on Labor Day 2020, she was 93 years old, with heart problems and a history of strokes. Her death was not shocking, but it was unexpected. Although she lived only six minutes away by car, my grandma resided in a retirement home. Because my family did not want to risk exposing her or other elderly people to coronavirus, our contact with her was reduced to phone calls and cards sent by mail. I spoke to her a week before she passed away. She seemed healthy. She was in good spirits.

I never expected my grandma’s death to be easy, but eight months later, sadness still clings to me when I remember I will never see her again.

Justifying grief

In the beginning, my deep bereavement felt almost unjustified. My grandma didn’t die from coronavirus and she lived a full, happy life of over 90 years. She died relatively peacefully. My family and I have remained healthy and financially stable throughout the pandemic. Not everyone was so fortunate. Humanity has lost over 3 million people to the pandemic, many of whom died prematurely. Others have experienced economic ruin. Those who live alone have been severely socially isolated.

Amidst so much suffering, I sometimes wondered, “Is the level of my sorrow justified when so many have experienced worse hardship?”

The answer is yes. The New York Times recently reported on the “disenfranchised grief” many of us have felt this past year. Disenfranchised grief is a term coined by Dr. Kenneth J. Doka, Professor at the Graduate School of The College of New Rochelle, to describe bereavement that goes unacknowledged. This can occur for a variety of reasons, such as social stigma attached to a loss (i.e. suicide or miscarriage) or a loss considered less significant than human death (i.e. death of a pet or an end to a romantic relationship). Disenfranchised grief can arise due to the loss of a job, inability to see a newborn grandchild, or the inability to participate in a cherished activity. It can also occur when a tragedy strikes amidst a pandemic.

Accepting grief

Grief during this time, for any reason, is valid. The same New York Times article quotes social worker Lisa S. Zoll who states, “A year into this, the losses are piling up. I just had this conversation in my office when this person said, ‘I can’t complain about my grief, because people have it worse.’ But we have to correct that thinking. Your grief is your grief. You can’t compare it to other people’s.”

For the past year, many of us have been unable to see our loved ones, sometimes even in their last living moments. Mourning rituals, as well as celebrations, remain socially distanced or virtual, preventing us from benefitting from the mood-boosting hormones that physical presence with loved ones brings. Hardships and deaths unrelated to the virus may have felt overshadowed. While precautions are still necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus, they have made this an especially challenging time to be joyful as well as to grieve.

Yet, we must grieve. Grieving allows us to accept change and release the energy we attached to a special person, thing, or experience. Furthermore, it is essential to our well-being. Mental Health America, a nonprofit that promotes mental health, asserts that unresolved grief can lead to physical or emotional illness.

Grieve your own way

Prior to her death, I had not seen my grandmother for six months, save for one socially distanced meeting outside her retirement facility. She often forgot to answer the phone so our conversations were sparse. After she died, we did not have a funeral for her. We decided to wait until May when my family, scattered across the US, could safely gather. Her ashes laid unceremoniously in a plastic bag in our dining room for months. Until this week, the week of her funeral, her death hardly felt real.

The most difficult part for me was not the anger or the sadness, but the strange apathy I felt for the first week after my grandma’s death. My mom was choked up. My sister sobbed. I just felt numb. It was as if my brain couldn’t comprehend the loss of a woman who had been a part of my life for so long. I felt this way for days until I finally broke into tears in a therapy session and then became angry at myself for my delayed and seemingly exaggerated reaction. 

However, experts assert that this too is normal. There is no right way to grieve. Emotions after the death of a loved one can range from denial to anger to yearning to humiliation. All are natural. There is also no particular order for an individual’s mourning process and the intensity of these emotions may wax and wane. While there are stages to grief – denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance – grief expert David Kessler, in an interview with the Harvard Business Review, states that the way each individual works through their grief is different. Most importantly, Kessler says it important to recognize these feelings such as grief and accept them.

Coping strategies during a pandemic

Thankfully, there are safe strategies for coping with any type of grief you may be experiencing during the pandemic. These are a few that helped me. Many of them are also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Talking on the phone with loved ones – I FaceTimed my mom and my sister right after my grandma passed away. We checked in on each other and talked through the initial shock. Seeing their faces reminded me I still have a loving family.
  • Journal – Writing is one of the primary ways I process my emotions. Even writing this article helps me feel more at peace with the situation.
  • Look at old photos – While cleaning out my grandma’s apartment, I found an old photo album of her college days, as well as photos of her with us. It was helpful to look back at my grandma laughing, healthy and vibrant. It gave me a more positive image of her than the one I had of her dying alone in a hospital.
  • Talk to a professional – I was already seeing a therapist virtually before my grandma’s death. But talking to her about death specifically was surprisingly cathartic. She helped me feel less guilty about my feelings. It was with her that I finally allowed myself to cry.
  • Find something else to focus on – Delving into my writing projects and practicing taekwondo were helpful in providing me with a creative outlet. Learning new skills diverted focus from my grief.

We have all experienced loss this past year. From missed graduation celebrations and weddings to isolation from friends to delayed funerals. No matter what you have endured this year or how it has made you feel, it is important to remember that your expression of grief is completely valid.

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